Is there anything scarier than a sofa? I've been reluctant to buy one since my last blunder, a Ralph Lauren leather sleigh so large that our feet dangled. The back and arms were high and swooping; it felt like being in a skateboard park. Children etched initials in the leather. This time I resolved to get an elegant, low-slung sofa for the living room. The day it arrived, though, I realized I had once again made a terrible, terrible mistake:
"That looks like dollhouse furniture," my husband said, wandering into the living room. "Is it for the dogs?"
He had a point. Bought to replace the old sofa that I'd moved to the former dining room, this new one looked so low I worried our knees would knock into our chins. The seat back barely reached our shoulder blades. And our 26-inch-high side tables looked like they were bullying it.
How had this debacle happened? Are there secret guidelines for determining the right size furniture for a room? If so, I needed to learn them—and fast.
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Photographs by Mimi Giboin.
Clinically, I scrutinized my new Sorensen Sofa (above). At 7 feet long and 33 inches deep, the Restoration Hardware sofa should have been right for a narrow living room with 8.5-foot-high ceilings. At 27 inches high, it fit perfectly under the windows. But it looked, for some reason, like a toy.
"Maybe you can return it," my husband observed helpfully.
"I don't think so," I said. "It was a custom order."
It is not a good feeling to carefully measure a room—not once, not twice, but a hundred times—before ordering a piece of furniture that you must wait for two months to get and which, when it finally arrives, appears to have been a complete waste of money. In fact, it doesn't get much worse in the home-decorating game. A faux pas of this magnitude calls into question one's taste, one's judgment, and whether one should ever again be allowed to buy a piece of furniture without involving one's spouse in the decision.
I needed help. So I phoned LA-based interior designer Alexandra Loew for advice:
"First of all, that is not a sofa, that's a bench," Ms. Loew said, after she looked up the Sorensen Sofa. "It's a beautiful piece, inspired by a Danish 1940s Borge Mogensen love seat. But it's so small—my husband would kill me if I brought that sofa home. Probably my kids would too."
Although Ms. Loew is generally in favor of small-scale furniture ("I almost always buy vintage pieces for clients because older furniture was smaller; new production furniture is too big and dwarfs a room"), she said the one exception to that rule is when it comes time to buy a sofa.
"From a comfort standpoint, new production seating is better," she said.
Think about how a sofa will relate to other pieces in the room, she said. Side tables "should never be taller than the sofa arm, because you want it to be a comfortable reach to set something down," she said.
When choosing a sofa, Ms. Loew said, consider the tallest member of your household. If that person is 6 feet tall, for instance, "you know you need to get a seat depth greater than 36 inches."
What is the point of a sofa, after all, if it not to erase the stress of your day with a welcoming embrace? Since the invention of the modern sofa in the 1600s when Parisian craftsmen started producing two- and three-seater sophas, people have been draping corseted bodices over an arm and stretching out in lacy dropped-shoulder jackets to watch Grey's Anatomy (or whatever they watched on TV in the 17th century).
In other words, the actual height of a piece of furniture is perhaps less important than how its dimensions and proportions work together—both the seat and the arms should be at comfortable heights and complement each other. For instance, I have a pair of very small bergère chairs (above) that my mother-in-law bought in the late 1960s. Despite a diminutive profile—they're 24 inches deep, 26 inches wide, and just 29 inches tall—they're extremely comfortable.
"With vintage pieces like that, I can think you can put more furniture in a room, and I think rooms look nice with lots of pieces," Ms. Loew said.
After I hung up, I flopped down on my new sofa—just to test it. Although the piece was low in profile, the seat was a standard height. Squirming around, I had to admit it was a success from a comfort standpoint. If only it didn't look so...small.
"Why did you get a sofa in such a weird light brown color?" my husband asked.
"I did not get a weird light brown color," I snapped. "It's a beautiful dark brown color—Cafe, it is called."
Now that he mentioned it, though, it was kind of light. I pulled out my complete set of Restoration Hardware fabric swatches (collected painstakingly over the course of many visits to my local store) to compare.
"Oh my God," I said. The sofa was not Cafe, it was Mocha.
They made it in the wrong color! It was their fault, not mine. I felt as if I'd won the lottery. I emailed a photo (of the swatches spread out on the sofa) to a customer service representative who apologized and said that I could return the sofa for a full refund. It was like something out of Dickens: After being shown how bad the future could have been, I'd been offered a second chance to change the course of history.
"You know where it might look good?" my husband asked. "In the dining room."
"You mean in the library?" I asked. (We are transitioning.)
I already had a sofa in that other room—a Chester Tufted Upholstered Sofa (above) from West Elm that had been moved there some weeks earlier to make way for the Sorensen Sofa. Actually, the Chester Sofa was pretty low, too—just 29 inches high—and had looked very nice in the living room (above) before it got moved into the library.
Around this time, my friend Stephanie (an interior designer who had overseen my Recent Kitchen Rehab) dropped in to see how the new sofa looked.
"You know where it might look good is in the library," she said.
"You have good taste," my husband told Stephanie.
"You don't have to keep it," Stephanie said. "But it would be interesting to see how it looks in there. As an exercise."
Together the three of us moved the sofas—and all the other furniture—around. The Chester Sofa went back to the living room. And the instant the Sorensen Sofa settled underneath the windows in the library (a much smaller, symmetrical room), it looked at home. With a northern exposure, the room was moodier, too; the upholstery looked dark brown instead of light.
"I think they didmake it in Cafe," Stephanie said, "but it was just a weird dye lot."
The next day Stephanie and I went to the Oakland Museum's White Elephant Sale Preview, where she found two small leather-topped side tables, 24 inches high, $60 for the pair.
"You should buy these and see how they look with the sofa," she said. "Not that you're keeping it."
Flanked by the two smaller side tables, the Sorensen Sofa suddenly had stature. It suited the smaller room nicely. And it was the perfect height for resting a tea cup on the window sill.
"You know," Stephanie said, "every time you buy a piece of furniture, it's an adjustment. It never looks in real life like you imagined it. Live with it for a few days."
A few days later, Restoration Hardware's furniture service called to schedule a pickup. "I'm keeping it," I said.
It's the best sofa I've ever had.
If you wonder why Michelle turned the dining room into a library in the first place, see The Death of the Dining Room.
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N.B.: This is an update of a post published February 4, 2013.